Saturday 22 October 2016

'The children ask, why are there shooters, why are there bad people?'

Emergency drills for their children and body searches are all part of life for Ronan and Jessica O'Gara in Paris, writes Niamh Horan

Published 17/07/2016 | 02:30

Ronan O’Gara and his wife Jessica. Photo: Kip Carroll
Ronan O’Gara and his wife Jessica. Photo: Kip Carroll

Ronan and Jessica O'Gara have opened up about living in Paris under the threat of terrorist attacks.

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The couple who live in the Sceaux, less than 10km from the centre of Paris where the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan massacres took place, described the reality of living in the shadow of violent extremism.

Speaking on Bastille Day, only hours before the terrorist attack which left 84 dead following a fireworks display in Nice, the couple described how they have been subjected to body searches for explosives on shopping trips and said their children have undergone emergency drills in the event of a chemical attack on their school.

The night the tragedy in Nice unfolded, the couple, who have five children between the ages of eight and two, said: "The world has changed."

The Racing 92 rugby coach explained: "To be honest, Jessica and I are really struggling in our heads to understand what happened. We are in disbelief that on a national holiday, in a holiday venue in the South of France, that something like this could happen. It's mind-boggling.

"Events in Paris were equally poignant and horrific but the thought of a lorry accelerating into a crowd full of young and old people is utterly horrendous. The world has changed," they said, adding: "Our prayers and thoughts are with France and all the families affected."

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, the day before the attack, in an interview regarding their recent appointment as the sport and style ambassadors for this year's Longines Irish Champions Weekend in September, the couple discussed at great length what it is like to live with the terrorist threat in France.

Jessica said: "After the first attack, on Charlie Hebdo, the [security forces] placed barriers outside the children's school and no cars were allowed to drive past or to pull up outside the school and no adult or parent was allowed inside.

"Our little three-year-old was only settling into the school since September and having to leave him outside the school and let him walk in on his own was very hard. Some of the kids were crying because they didn't want to have to leave but this is the way it has to be. The teachers waited inside for kids to come in to them. They school kept that security measure going all year - they never relaxed it."

The couple said that after the attacks in Paris last November, the atmosphere in the city became even more alarming.

Read more: The horrific reality is dawning on France: that terrorist slaughter is set to be the new normal

Gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Bataclan concert venue, the Stade de France, restaurants and bars, killing 130 people and injuring hundreds more. "It was a lot more frightening after that," explained Jessica. "It happened on a Friday night /Saturday morning. We turned on the television and we saw everything as it unfolded in the Bataclan - they still had the hostages inside. The next morning, we heard helicopters overhead, the kids' rugby training was cancelled that morning because they didn't want crowds gathering anywhere, and the streets were so quiet and eerie. It was a horrible atmosphere.

"They messaged everyone to stay indoors. Nobody was allowed go to shopping centres or any other major public places. We were only 7km from there and every shop you went in to for a long time afterwards made you open your handbag and show them [that you weren't carrying any weapons].

"In the winter time, you had to open your coat and show that you weren't wearing an explosive belt.

"And the 'Vigipirate' [France's national security alert system] meant you had to be careful and vigilant of terrorism.

"The children have had to do emergency drills in their school too, which frightened me. They gave us a note one day to explain what was happening. They practised a drill as to what they should do if there is a chemical attack. They then told us, as parents, if there is a chemical attack, and there is a problem, we have to stay inside and if the kids are a kilometre away stuck inside a [school] building, you're not allowed go collect them, which to me, I would hate to think that I would be a kilometre away and my kids stuck and not allowed to go and get them but I know I would probably try. It goes against your natural instincts."

She said their children have been asking questions about terrorism since the attacks. "The twins, who are eight now, had a minute's silence in their school and they were told by their teachers about what had happened. We would have questions then at home. They would ask 'Why are there shooters?' and 'Why are there bad people?' and 'Why are they killing themselves too?' And when it happened in Belgium, we showed them on the news what had happened and they were just very matter-of-fact about it. The problem is that it's something they know now as just being part of life. It is the world we live in really, isn't it?"

"For the first week or 10 days after the attacks, we were afraid but then you realise you could be in London or you could be in New York, and then, as Ronan said, you could be hit by a bus one day, you just don't know. The thing about Paris is that there is no real city centre and it's massive so it's pretty random where they did attack and where they can attack."

Ronan and Jessica were speaking ahead of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend which takes place on September 10 and 11 at Leopardstown and the Curragh racecourses. Both will be attending the prestigious racedays and will be promoting the event across the summer as ambassadors.

Meanwhile, this week Ronan will be travelling to New York with Johnny Sexton as part of the 'No 10' charity fund, which they set up in association with CMRF Crumlin, the fundraising body for Our Lady's Children's Hospital Crumlin and The National Children's Research Centre.

Johnny and Ronan will be the guests of honour at a gala dinner organised by CMRF and The American Ireland Funds. They will also participate in a rugby clinic in association with Play Rugby USA.

Sunday Independent

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